House Democratic leaders indicated Wednesday that they will accept a Senate-passed bill imposing new sanctions against South Africa, thus forcing an early showdown with President Reagan, who has threatened to veto any measure that punishes the Pretoria regime.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced after a meeting with his House counterpart, Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, that he has persuaded House leaders to accept the Senate bill--even though it is weaker than the House legislation.
The President has threatened to veto what he has described as “punitive” sanctions intended to pressure South Africa to change its apartheid system of racial separation. But Reagan has not commented specifically on the Senate bill.
The Senate bill would ban new U.S. business investment in South Africa and prohibit trade in agricultural products, steel and nuclear supplies. The House bill, passed by a voice vote last June, would have required a near-complete break in business ties with South Africa.
Lugar said he told House leaders that Reagan might drop his veto threat if presented with the Senate bill, which passed the GOP-controlled chamber Aug. 15 by a vote of 84 to 14. “I believe the best chance for having a bill that the President will sign is for the House to accept the Senate bill,” he said.
He said he hopes the House will pass the Senate bill Friday and that it will be on the President’s desk early next week when members of the European Communities are expected to approve a similar measure. The European Communities’ action is expected to put additional pressure on Reagan to sign the Senate bill.
Still, House and Senate leaders remained at odds over Lugar’s contention that the Senate bill would preempt all state anti-apartheid laws, including California’s landmark legislation providing for the state pension fund to divest itself of $8.3 billion in investments in companies that do business with South Africa.
Lugar predicted that the President would find the bill more “attractive” if it preempts state laws. According to Senate aides, Administration officials have told Lugar that Reagan strongly opposes state anti-apartheid laws such as that passed in California.
‘Tidies Up the Field’
When Congress acts in the field of foreign policy, Lugar said, its laws usually supersede actions by states and municipalities. “It tidies up the field and makes it clear that this is a foreign policy matter,” he said.
Lugar said that 19 state and 62 local anti-apartheid statutes already have served their purpose by forcing Congress to act. “They have drawn our attention to the problem,” he said.
But California Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Oakland), who authored the House-passed sanctions bill, said many House Democrats disagree with Lugar’s interpretation. He indicated that supporters of the state anti-apartheid statutes would submit their views for the record to influence anticipated court cases on the question of whether the federal law supersedes state law.
Dellums said he fears that if state and local laws are preempted by federal law, it would undermine the enthusiasm of local anti-apartheid groups that have lobbied for several years to obtain such laws. “People at the grass-roots level are going to feel betrayed,” he said.
But Lugar spokesman Mark Helmke said he doubts that a majority of members of Congress would agree with Dellums and other supporters of state anti-apartheid laws.
Pressure for Passage
“Does the House of Representatives really want to cede its right to make foreign policy to state and local jurisdictions?” he asked. “If so, the Democrats have adopted ‘new federalism’ with a vengeance. It’s a dangerous precedent.”
Dellums acknowledged that the issue is not likely to impede House passage of the Senate bill. “There is great pressure here to get something passed,” he said.
Although the House is expected to accept the weaker Senate bill, House Democrats are expected to make it plain in floor statements that they would have preferred a stronger bill. They are expected to emphasize that they are accepting the Senate measure only because it has sufficient congressional support to survive a presidential veto.
A two-thirds vote of both chambers is necessary to override a veto.
Lugar said he persuaded the House members that if they insist on making changes in the Senate bill, they would only delay passage of sanctions legislation and diminish the broad congressional support necessary to override a possible Reagan veto.
He added that, if Reagan agrees to sign the bill next week, the United States will be acting in concert with the 12-member European Communities, the Commonwealth countries and Japan--sending a strong message to Pretoria that most of the Western world opposes apartheid.